T'ai-chi Ch'uan and Aikido

by Jack Bieler



In 1988, I had the opportunity to study several T'ai-chi forms at a seminar given by Tsunako Miyake, Aikido Shihan and T'ai-chi Master.  Then, a few years ago, I got to spend six months learning a Yang/Wu form as part of my massage therapy certification course.  Having practiced Aikido for many years, I could not help seeing T'ai-chi Ch'uan through the filter of my training.  Several differences and similarities struck me.



Method of Practice


The most obvious difference is the method of practice.  In Aikido, all of our practice is interactive.  We cannot learn to deal with another's energy if we are practicing by ourselves.  In T'ai-chi, we learn to manipulate our posture and motion in individual practice.


There is no real cognate of forms practice in the traditional Aikido teaching system, although several styles have begun to move towards codifying their curricula.  The use of form in T'ai-chi corresponds to the function of kata in Tomiki Ryu Aikido.  Tomiki Ryu Aikido is kata-based, but the katas are practiced with a partner, and randori remains a major component of training.  In traditional Aikido, one must draw from the formless, following a master's direction.


One result of solitary form practice is that T'ai-chi practitioners may not have a good feel for hands-on application of techniques in a martial-arts setting.  My instructor (assistant-level) once nearly broke my arm showing me a "practical" movement.  He simply did not instinctively know the danger point in applying an armbar, because the bulk of his training was not hands-on.  Undoubtedly his level of experience was also a factor.


Push Hands training gives the T'ai-chi devotee the contact experience found in Aikido randori.  This training is usually limited to very advanced students, and is considered secondary by most practitioners.  Push Hands is done slowly and meditatively, but it is not uncommon for a master to throw his partner twenty feet back.  There is a point beyond which one cannot advance in T'ai-chi without Push Hands.


A major congruence is the popularity of the concept of ch'i (Japanese ki) as a basis for understanding the art.  The development of ch'i is even more central to T'ai-chi practice, as the art has been developed for centuries as a vehicle for opening energy channels in accordance with intricate Taoist theory.


T'ai-chi is widely taught as a health exercise, which has diluted the self-defense aspect while emphasizing Taoist principles. Similarly, Aikido's quality as a spiritual path has led some practitioners to neglect the criterion of combat effectiveness.  The seed of original practicality, however, can be found in both arts by the serious and dedicated student.  I consider this essential to true practice, for development of deep self-confidence and self-respect.



Style of Technique


There are both differences and similarities in technique between Tai Ch'i and Aikido.  The basic strategy is to use an attacker's own energy to neutralize the attack.  At higher levels the technique of both systems can be quite similar.  They can be two paths to the top of the same mountain.


The technical differences include footwork, posture, distance and repertoire.  These differences are fundamental enough that concurrent practice in both arts may interfere with the development of automatic responses in either system.


In T'ai-chi, one always has the majority of weight on one foot or the other.  The body is twisted and turned from its base.  Many postures, often patterned after animal forms, seem highly theatrical.  Master Ueshiba abandoned predetermined stances, preferring the universality of hanmi.  In Aikido, movement comes from a balanced center, using a unique sliding footwork (tsuri-ashi).  Same-hand same-foot is also prevalent, since power comes from movement of the whole body, rather than well-rooted twisting of the waist.


While T'ai-chi does include several types of kicks, in both styles the fist is largely replaced by the more powerful open-hand push.  T'ai-chi is prone to in-fighting, while in Aikido even grappling techniques tend to be done at arms' length.  The extended arm-bar is the most common joint-lock technique in T'ai-chi, usually applied with a drawing motion to the side.


Practical (combative) applications in T'ai-chi are often held secret, or are considered of little interest.  Thus, the dynamic throws based on joint-locks that are so prominent and explicit in Aikido are not seen in T'ai-chi.  The idea is that infinite techniques are hidden within the forms, and will reveal themselves when one's trained responses react spontaneously.



Goal of Training


The greatest similarity is probably in the ultimate goal of training.  In both styles, achieving harmony is the aim.  This must start within the practitioner, and extends to the attacker and the universe.  The greatest challenge in either art is the battle with one's own fears and desires, the stumbling blocks to practice and self-mastery.


I once saw a T'ai-chi practitioner in randori with a brand-new shodan who had a bad case of ego.  He tried to manhandle the T'ai-chi player and failed miserably when non-resistance proved more than a match for bad Aikido.  The ego will always interfere with spontaneous creation of technique, especially in the basically contrived situation of practice.


The benefit of training in an internal art, such as T'ai-chi or Aikido, is that non-violence is intrinsic to the art.  We can talk about gentleness and self-defense, but if we practice aggression and violence we are being dishonest with ourselves.  In true practice we transcend the limits of our own strength and athleticism, and become open to the infinite power of not striving.





I have found T'ai-chi to be a valuable adjunct to my Aikido training.  I learned about relaxing the hips, and applied the feeling of slow, constant motion to my Aikido practice (try it -- you'll be amazed at how poor your balance really is).  The differences in the two arts proved to be as valuable to me as the similarities.  As my Aikido sensei once said, everybody should have a little T'ai-chi.



Short Annotated Bibliography



Cheng Man-ch'ing and Robert W. Smith.  T'ai-chi.  Tuttle, 1967.


Cheng Man-ch'ing was the foremost T'ai-chi master in the United States, teaching in New York City until just before his death in 1975.  This book shows his 37-step form and includes history, sporting and self-defense, as well as the T'ai-chi Classics and a wonderful Q&A interview with the co-author, a noted martial arts historian and student of Cheng.  Here is a sample quote:


"The secret is simply this: you must relax body and mind totally.  You must be prepared to accept defeat repeatedly and for a long period; you must 'invest in loss' -- otherwise you will never succeed."


Sound familiar?



Draeger, Donn F. and Robert W. Smith.  Complete Asian Fighting Arts.  Kodansha, 1980.


This general history of the martial arts includes a large section on T'ai-chi Ch'uan, and an extensive chart showing the lineage of the various styles and practitioners.



Lowenthal, Wolfe.  There Are No Secrets; The Tai Chi of Cheng Man-ch'ingNorth Atlantic Books, 1983.


Wolfe Lowenthal was a student of Cheng Man-ch'ing and this loving tribute is a marvelous exposition of his art and influence.  Much of what Cheng taught is directly applicable to Aikido.  This book is comprised of anecdotes and insights into the training process, rather than technical instruction.



Wile, Douglas (trans).  T'ai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions.  Sweet Ch'i Press, 1983.


I found this book at the China Exposition several years ago.  It contains several classic texts and the teachings of Yang Cheng-fu, the great and undefeatable T'ai-chi Master who popularized the large, slow movements that characterize the Yang form.



Copyright 1995 Jack Bieler. All Rights Reserved.